Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island. Continue reading “We Must All Be Changed”
I have been following and occasionally commenting on an article in Orion magazine by Derrick Jensen called “Self Evident Truths.”
The other commentators frequently refer to a book that Derrick co-authored called Deep Green Resistance (2011), which advocates a resistance movement that includes the use of violence to bring down industrial civilization. What follows is a slightly modified version of a comment I made on the Orion site earlier today.
I’ve been operating under the assumption, which was common twenty years ago (cf. How Much is Enough (1992) by Alan Durning), that a more modest, European style life is sustainable. That using 90% less electricity than the American average (which we do, and which is perfectly comfortable) is sufficient. That driving less, and eating more local food and no grain-fed animals, and drinking fewer bottled drinks, and not flying, and mending clothes rather than buying new, and fixing things rather than replacing them, and keeping a computer for a decade rather than a couple of years, and eschewing the whole smartphone/cell phone thing, etc etc is enough. That converting to solar for heat and electricity is good enough. I thought it was sufficient to live with less of this stuff. That the American (now mostly global) “way of life” is so obscenely obese, that trimming the fat is enough. That giving it all up entirely is not necessary. And that may still be true, although we are not even close to doing any of that trimming!
But now I am not certain. I am not entirely convinced, but I am at least unsettled by Derrick’s position, which is that the entire package of civilization as we know it is unsustainable. That any importation of materials from outside your immediate region is unsustainable. That any use of fossil fuels is unsustainable (this is unequivocally true – no finite resource can be used indefinitely). That any mining of minerals is unsustainable. That any exploitation of labor is unsustainable (this one seems more a moral stand than a physical one – unfortunately, exploitation of labor can probably go on indefinitely in a strictly biological sense). I reject absolutely the use of violence and destruction to bring down the system because I feel they are part of the system that needs to be transformed, but the advocacy of a strict definition of sustainability is compelling.
What kind of life would we be living without any export or import of materials, without any fossil fuels, without any mining of minerals, without any exploitation of labor? What if we include animals in that? How would we live without any exploitation of human or animal labor? Now we are back to being hunter/gatherers with perhaps a bit of permaculture thrown in. Or if we compromise a wee bit on the animal part, we can include being pastoralists (shepherds, goatherds, nomadic reindeer herders etc). What else is there that is completely harmonious with the processes of life? How else can we be human animals, where absolutely everything we take from the Earth is given back in a form that is useful to Life? What else can it possibly mean to live sustainably?
I ask these questions in all seriousness. From this strict definition of sustainability (which is the only definition that the Earth cares about) nearly everything we do now is unsustainable. It all has to stop one way or another.
I agree with Derrick that to participate in the current industrial economy is de facto to live a life of violence and exploitation. That is part of the structure of civilization. Theologian John Dominic Crossan calls it the “exploitative normalcy” of civilization and argues that Jesus was calling his followers to reject that system absolutely, both in the external circumstances of their lives and even more potently in the internalization of that system in their own behavior and thinking (cf. The Birth of Christianity (1998)). I have been making that argument for a couple of decades. But I still reject the intentional use of violence to combat what is for most of us the unintended violence of a system we were born into and are trying to find a way out of. Violence can not end violence. There has to be a better way.
The Civil Rights Movement is a fine example of positive, nonviolent, coercive resistance, but my understanding is that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/social/economic/military system was so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what Jesus called metanoia — a complete transformation of heart and mind. Resistance tactics were adequate for achieving limited political and social gains within the exploitation system, but not for transforming or unravelling the system itself. Dr. King got into big trouble with his movement colleagues when he started addressing the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us, and we much prefer to project it onto someone else. Like it or not, this is not an us-versus-them problem. It is an all-of-us-together problem. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who are benefitting from the system at the brutal expense of everyone and everything else (and that “few” now includes most of us in the industrialized world), but it does mean we will get nowhere by projecting all of our fear and anger and blame onto them.
J. Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) said in his book, Beyond Violence (1970),
“… unless there is a fundamental, radical revolution in the psyche, in the very root of one’s being, mere trimming, mere legislation on the periphery, has very little meaning. So what we are concerned with is whether man, as he is, can radically bring about a transformation in himself; not according to a particular theory, a particular philosophy, but by seeing actually what he is. That very perception of what he is, will bring about the radical change. And to see what he is, is of the highest importance – not what he thinks he is, not what he is told that he is.”
This still seems to me to be our best and perhaps our only hope. That we see things (ourselves included) as they/we truly are and stop deceiving ourselves. That in itself brings about a radical reorientation without any violence or coercion. I have seen this in action, and I known how powerful it can be.
That still leaves open the question of how much is enough and how much is too much. It still leaves us pondering the meaning of sustainability: we must use only what we truly need, and absolutely everything we use from the Earth must be given back in a form that is beneficial to Life. It still leaves us with the urgent question of whether we can change course quickly enough and soon enough to avert catastrophe. But I am convinced we can not answer those questions adequately and on the scale required, where it actually makes a global difference, without a radical transformation of heart and mind. Without that transformation we inevitably fall back into violence, the endless repetition of that ancient ill.
At our family gathering last night we got talking about the need for a new, no-growth or selective-growth basis for our economy, one that can supply us with our needs without requiring the trashing of the planet, and we got talking about the Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and his movie What Would Jesus Buy? And that led to a discussion of the story of Judas and the woman with the oil.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, [and his sisters, Martha and Mary]. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot… said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”… And Jesus said, “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
I woke up thinking about that story, and how similar the theme of that story is to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha. I was amazed when I looked up the two stories and saw that they appear to be the same core story told differently by different authors.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part,
which will not be taken from her.”
Luke has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him teaching, and Martha gets bent out of shape because she is doing the socially correct thing of serving a big meal for this honored guest, and she resents Mary just sitting there at the feet of the teacher.
John also has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, but this time Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and rubs his feet with her hair (a lot sexier than just sitting at his feet receiving the teaching). And in this version it is Judas getting bent out of shape and complaining that Mary is not doing the socially correct thing. In both cases, Jesus defends Mary against Judas/Martha’s social correctness. Same story, only slightly different characters.
I was also reminded of the story of the return of the prodigal son. The “good” son complains bitterly that he has “worked hard and played by the rules” yet it is the returning spendthrift who gets the big party.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing… Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ” Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came
back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I love the line from the Martha and Mary story, “You are busy with many things, but only one thing is needful.”
And what is the one needful thing? In each case the one needful thing appears to be a shocking abdication of social norms and social rules and social obligations. The one needful thing is delighting in the divine presence, which is right here, this very moment. The one needful thing is to be alert to and in love with this sacred moment, right here, right now.
I see Martha and Judas and the “good” son trying to justify their existence through their adherence to the rules, through their fulfilling of established social roles. The one who enters into the divine presence, who isn’t “doing” anything to justify his or her existence displays a shocking alternative to the entire social/economic order (which is exactly what we need right now). And Jesus seems to be telling his followers, choose that one needful thing. Your existence needs no justification. You do not have to prove yourself. No one is keeping score. The kingdom of heaven is right here, within and among you. If you can not recognize its presence right here, right now, how can you ever enter it? As the “prodigal father” says, in essence, “The party is in progress, set aside your distress and come join the party.”
Reflections on a gospel passage “I come not to tear down the Law but to fulfill it.” I first wrote this almost two years ago, but it is terribly relevant to me right now.
It seems to me that this gospel passage shows that Jesus was struggling with a challenge that is highly relevant to us today. For him to say something like “Do not say that I have come to tear down the Law” must mean that people were in fact accusing him of that very thing. Which means that his actions and his words were perceived as a challenge and a threat to traditional belief and practice.
But he replies to this criticism, “I have come to fulfill the Law,” which sounds to me like this, “I am honoring the very foundation on which the Law is built, on which all religion is built. If the edifice of your beliefs and practices is falling it is because those beliefs are not true to the foundation, not because I am tearing them down.”
Now, it seems to me that we face this same challenge today. The structures of our societies and our economies, our thought structures and many of our religious structures, are not true to the foundation of Life. They serve only themselves. And many are in full-frontal assault on the foundation of Life on Earth. So how do we, as people who wish to remain true to the foundation, which is the fundamental unity of all that is — which expresses itself as love of oneself, love of neighbor, of enemy, of life forms alien and mysterious to us humans — how do we stay true to that foundation of unity and at the same time deal effectively with the structures — in which we ourselves are deeply enmeshed — that perpetuate genocide and biocide?
People the world over identify deeply with the super-structures of belief and tradition that they hold dear. Yet so many of those structures must fall or be transformed if Life on Earth is to be reclaimed. People, all of us, will feel that what we hold most dear, our very sense of self, is under attack. How do we, with Jesus, say “I have not come to tear apart but to fulfill. Not to destroy, but to build. It may feel like an attack on the foundation, but it is not. There is a deeper foundation to be rediscovered. Let the false fall away and the truth return. Let the structures that are destroying Life fall away and let new life grow from the still-healthy root.”
How do we do this? Can love transform the world? How does love approach those who feel threatened by the change, those who feel that all they hold dear is under attack, including their very sense of identity? How do we allow our devotion to belief and tradition and security to fall away, if that is the consequence of being true to the foundation of radical, inclusive love? How do we bear witness to the truth, knowing that there are many edifices of society and self that will not stand under the scrutiny?
If we are to survive the coming decades, and if we are to live on an Earth that is vitally alive with all manner of life forms, radical change must come. To welcome that change we will have to know what is true and what is false, and we will have to know how to let go of many of our most cherished possessions, those possessed in the mind, and embrace the living truth.
Where or what is the kingdom of God?
This is it. Right here. Right now.
It is not a future time. It is not some exalted place in the clouds. It is not even dependent on some set of conditions: perfect peace and justice. It does not appear after peace appears or after justice is established.
Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are not conditions on which the kingdom of God depends. The kingdom of God is not dependent on any condition. It is already here among us. It has only to be recognized. Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are dependent on the presence of the kingdom of God. It is in recognizing the kingdom of God, already present, that peace and balance are restored. We’ve been doing this backward for a very, very long time. Trying to create the kingdom of God by establishing peace, by any means necessary, including through war. Totally backward, right?
This is my understanding of why Jesus said, “seek ye first the kingdom of God… and all these things shall be added unto you. Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (KJV Matt 6:33-34).
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, because all else is dependent on it. Take no thought for tomorrow, because when tomorrow arrives, it is today. It is always today. It is always right now. Right here, right now is the only place we ever are. So if the kingdom of God is to be found anywhere, if it has any reality, it must be found right here, right now. It’s presence cannot possibly be dependent on any change in conditions.
So, this is it. This crazy mess called life is it. This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now. This is heaven. It is amazing to be alive. It is only in thinking and acting as if this is something other than the kingdom of God that we make it appear to be something other than the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is within us and around us at all times. It is what we are. It is life living itself through us and through everything. And it is deeper even than life. It is the source of life. Not an external source but the intrinsic source, the energy within matter. The stillness within energy. The incredible beauty and intelligence and creativity within stillness, within energy, within matter, within life.
The kingdom of God is everything, and it is that without which nothing could be. It is therefore immediately at hand, in everything. Pick up a stone and it is there. Take a breath and it is there. Fall into deep sleep and it is there. Awaken to the rising sun and it is there. It is in every encounter, every sight, every sound, every thought, every feeling, every joy, every sorrow, every happening. It is what makes all of that possible, and it is all of that, the interplay of everything. There is nothing you can do to escape the kingdom of God. You have never been anything or anywhere but the kingdom of God.
We think that we are separate from it, that it is far off from us either in space or in time. It is by believing that thought, by repeating it incessantly, that we make it appear to be true. But it was never true. And if we stop repeating these untruths and turn back to the immediacy of life being lived right now through all of life together, then the presence of God’s kingdom, its beauty and majesty, its wonder and surprise, its creativity and intelligence, its peace and harmony, become immediately apparent once again.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God in the dance of all things. Right here. Right now.
Look! The kingdom of God is right at hand.